1990 BMW 318is Is a Bona Fide Value

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From the September 1990 issue of Car and Driver.

We could begin this discussion of the new BMW 318is by saying that, finally, here’s a BMW that Biff and Buffy can afford, even if they’re strung out by stress, staggering vet bills, and interest pay­ments on the condo.

And we could say that here’s a BMW intended to provide the ultimate-driv­ing-machine experience even to those who must daily face life without red sus­penders or home-delivery mineral wa­ter. Which is to say, if we dare, that the two-door 318is and its companion piece, the four-door 318i, are considered by BMW management to be affordable.

The question of affordability is some­thing you’ll have to deal with after you turn off David Letterman and lie there in the dark trying to will your con­science into submission. If indecision persists or is unusually severe, put some Wagner on and add a six-pack of Beck’s to the mix.

For those who have thus far been kept out of BMWs by an innate sense of fiscal responsibility (or a mulish loan officer), the biggest news here is the price: our 318is, as tested, cost a modest $21,985. The four-door, at a base of $19,900, is the first BMW 3-series to cost less than $20,000 since 1986. Last year, the Car and Driver Buyers Guide listed 3-series base prices ranging from $24,650 for the price-leader six-cylinder sedan to $34,950 for the thoroughbred M3, the car that a Famous Writer called “worth sacrificing the lives of every golden re­triever on earth.” Well, maybe he didn’t say exactly that, but most famous per­sons don’t really understand what BMWs are all about in the first place.

What BMWs are about, of course, is Driving, with a capital “D,” and that’s why the marque is one of our favorites. These days, BMWs are also about letting you feel that you’re not only one up on your neighbors and their minivans, but that you’ve left some of the town’s smart set lusting in your wake as well. We’ll stick with the driving.

Our test drive–which started in San Antonio, Texas, advanced to the Missis­sippi gulf coast, and then turned north toward Detroit—concerned only the 318is, so we’ll confine our remarks to that version. Which is only appropriate, it being the sportier of the pair.

The 318is has a four-cylinder engine. There. We’ve gone ahead and said it. And, having said it, we can also say that there is life after the wonderful 2.5-liter inline-six that we’ve loved so much around here. Even so, what questions we have concerning the envy quotient of the new 318is center on the new engine. Be assured that it’s a fine piece of work, the kind you’ve come to expect from BMW. Also be assured that it displaces only 1.8 liters and generates 134 horsepower.

“The engine is the most powerful 1.8-liter normally aspirated four-cylinder sold in the United States,” says BMW’s Rob Mitchell.

The new engine indeed has all the hats and horns needed for a celebration. Each cylinder has four valves, activated by chain-driven double overhead cam­shafts. Though BMW’s experience with four-valve-per-cylinder engines dates to a racing engine that appeared in 1966 and extends through a series of the spar­kling M-series engines, the new 1.8-liter four has the first four-valve-per-cylinder engine intended for volume production. How much volume? BMW hopes to sell 7000 units in North America this year and 15,000 per year after that.

The engine’s completely new alumi­num cylinder-head design incorporates hollow camshafts designed to reduce weight and power-sapping inertial forces, if only by a minuscule amount. It’s driven by a chain that’s kept quiet by the use of rubber-coated guides and a hy­draulic tensioner. The noise police also installed hydraulic bucket tappets, which have the additional advantage of avoid­ing oil drainage when the engine is not running. The valvetrain cover has been acoustically “decoupled” from the cylin­der head to reduce noise still further. Having nothing to do with noise but a lot to do with hard driving, the exhaust valves are sodium-cooled.

The engine is controlled by a new­-generation Bosch Digital Motor Elec­tronics engine-management system with individual ignition coils at each cylinder. This works in conjunction with the usual Bosch port-fuel-injection system. There’s a two-barrel throttle body that uses a 1.4-inch-diameter opening for del­icate control at light loads and an addi­tional 2.2-inch-diameter opening for high power demands.

The exhaust system has a nifty large­-diameter header, two mufflers, and a cat­alytic converter. A 10.0:1 compression ratio allows the use of 91-octane fuel, your conscience permitting, and the EPA awards the 318is a fuel-economy rating of 22 mpg city, 27 mpg highway. We ob­served a 26-mpg figure during the car’s stay with us.

Speaking of mileage, what’s it like to drive this machine? In two words, not bad. The peak horsepower of 134 ap­pears at 6000 rpm, 600 revs below redline. Maximum torque, 127 pound-feet, is found at 4600 rpm. If you judge from these technical tidbits that the engine takes a bit of hard driving to extract maximum performance, you judge correctly.

Driven under noncombat conditions, the car will feel a tad on the slow side. It won’t bore you exactly, nor is it a lug, but neither will it give you that sense of pent-up energy you feel in a good horse straining at its reins.

We managed to exceed BMW’s per­formance projections when we tested the 318is. We achieved a 0-to-60-mph time of 8.7 seconds (BMW had predicted 9.9), and our landing quarter-mile clocked in at 82 mph in 16.4 seconds. Top speed was 123 mph.

The powertrain includes a Getrag 240/5 five-speed gearbox that’s as nice an interface between car and driver as you’ll ever find. There’s no automatic option in the transmission column, an obvious money-saving move that might cost some mainstream sales but won’t disappoint the true BMW enthusiast—it may even weed out some of the Land’s End and L.L. Bean dandelions.

The handling is pure BMW, which is to say more fun than Labrador puppies. We did note that the steering tended toward the light side at high speed, but the rest of the attributes were of the level expected from a Bimmer—very high. The suspen­sion is fully independent, and the 318is gets thicker anti-roll bars and shock ab­sorbers with a sportier personality than in the 318i. The package, called the M-Tech­nic suspension, aims to provide crisper handling than the four-door and succeeds in doing just that—without unduly compromising the car’s fine ride.

The 0.80-g skidpad number won’t win any trophies, but this figure does not al­ways reflect a car’s overall competence­ let alone the satisfaction it can deliver in the right pair of hands.

Braking from 70 mph required only 170 feet, and the standard anti-lock sys­tem and four-wheel discs displayed no fade whatsoever in repeated stopping maneuvers. We don’t think it’s overstat­ing the case to say that most BMW brak­ing systems display excellent pedal feel and feedback so accurate that the driver feels as if his feet were connected me­chanically to the brake calipers. The 318is upholds this tradition.

The BMW 318is and 318i keep other BMW customs as well, beginning with the concept of offering a well-equipped car at the advertised base price. Here’s what you get with the 318is (the small “s” is for “sport,” in case you wondered): air conditioning, a driver-side air bag, anti­-lock brakes, power windows, a central door-locking system, a rear defroster, sport seats with good lateral support in a choice of fabric or leatherette, a four-­speaker AM/FM/cassette system, and a lot more. The 318is also gets a deck spoiler and an air dam that distinguish it from its colleague, plus fourteen-inch al­loy wheels whose 6.5-inch width holds a variety of 195/65R14 tires (our car wore H-rated Goodyear Eagle NCT65s). The only options available on the two 318 models are a limited-slip differential, halogen fog lights, an anti-theft system, metallic paint, and a sunroof.

Clearly, the BMW marketers mean business with these cars. When you fac­tor in the generous list of standard equip­ment, the cars—viewed by a BMW en­thusiast—seem more than reasonably priced. But it would be wrong to rule out such competition as the Eagle Talon TSi AWD, which can be said to have most of the above plus all-wheel drive. Or a Nissan Maxima SE, which has four doors. Or a Ford Thunderbird SC, which can blow the BMW into the Armco at an equally reasonable price. All those cars, moreover, possess exterior styling that can be said to be far more modern than that of the current Bimmer 3-series.

But none of those competitors is a BMW. And in some circles, the BMW heritage, including the look of the 3-se­ries, counts for a lot. How widely those circles reach into the marketplace, only time will tell, of course.

“It is a BMW without compromise,” BMW’s North American boss Karl Gerlinger told us. And we’d agree with that. There’s no hint of bargain-base­ment tackiness about these two cars, par­ticularly the 318is. And though its price seems low to BMW management—and presumably to potential BMW owners—­the average enthusiast won’t call it cheap. Whether you can afford a 318is has little or nothing to do with us thinking you ought to have one of them. Owning a BMW, like dating a movie star or having your horse win the Kentucky Derby, is just one of those things that red-blooded Americans ought to do. How you do it, of course, is your business.


At last: a reasonably priced BMW that feels like a Bimmer. Banish those sorry recollections of the deceased (happily) eight-valve 318i—a car that delighted the fern-bar crowd but chilled the hearts of the BMW faithful. This new 318—the sixteen-valve 318—feels and acts like a scaled-down version of its bigger, more potent brethren.

Yes, you have to rev the whee out of the 1.8-liter four to wring the most from it, but remember that this is a BMW engine; it likes—scratch that, adores—being gunned hard. And the five-speed shifter is one of the finest on the planet. So it’s easy to keep the tach needle up where it belongs.

For $21,895, the 318is offers a lot for discerning drivers: that hearty powertrain, an air bag, stout anti-lock brakes, a fine chassis, and a fair help­ing of convenience items. You can find plenty of better-performing cars for less money, but few share this Bimmer’s steadfast character.

BMW lovers: this one is worth it. —Arthur St. Antoine

The 318is is a bargain hunter’s BMW that stays true to the marque’s sports-­sedan heritage. True to tradition, its impressive list of standard equipment includes a wonderful engine: an all­-new sixteen-valve four-cylinder. Al­though not exactly turbo-muscular, the new engine makes plenty of us­able horsepower and some pretty ter­rific sounds in the process. Keep the tach needle in the upper ranges and you’ll never miss the six-cylinder.

The controls are light and precise, and the sport seats are some of the best around, even if they are covered in vinyl. Unfortunately, the ventilation system falls short of modern standards: the cabin becomes unusually stuffy when the fan isn’t used to boost circulation. Because the back-seat windows don’t open, the optional sunroof is almost a necessity.

Except for a few badges, the 318is is visually identical to its more upscale 3-series siblings. It proves BMW can build a satisfying sports sedan and of­fer it at a reasonable price. —Jeffrey Dworin

On paper, the BMW 318is doesn’t seem overly impressive. It uses BMW’s oldest body style, it is bereft of many of the usual creature com­forts, it is fitted with the least powerful engine the company sells in America, and it performs no better than any of several econohunks. Seemingly, the only thing going for this car is its price, which is low by BMW’s lofty standards.

From behind its wheel, however, the 318is starts to look better. With its solid body and supple suspension, the small Bimmer can be hurled over even the most pockmarked roads without losing touch with the pave­ment or inciting a symphony of shakes and shudders. Its driveline is an un­mitigated pleasure, marrying a pre­cise shifter with a supremely eager engine that joyfully gives its all without hesitation. Finally, this newest 3-se­ries model, with its smaller powerplant and less burdensome load of creature comforts, has a de­lightfully light and agile feel, giving it a decidedly sporting flavor.

Those drivers who can see past its modest specs will find that the 318is provides enough driving satisfaction to justify its price. —Csaba Csere

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1990 BMW 318is
Vehicle Type: front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 2-door coupe


Base/As Tested: $21,985/$21,985

DOHC 16-valve inline-4, iron block and aluminum head, port fuel injection
Displacement: 110 in3, 1796 cm3
Power: 134 hp @ 6000 rpm
Torque: 127 lb-ft @ 4600 rpm 

5-speed manual


Suspension, F/R: control arm/trailing arms
Brakes, F/R: 10.2-in vented disc/10.2-in disc
Tires: Goodyear Eagle NCT65


Wheelbase: 101.2 in
Length: 170.3 in
Width: 64.8 in
Height: 53.5 in
Passenger Volume, F/R: 45/37 ft3
Trunk Volume: 12 ft3
Curb Weight: 2607 lb

30 mph: 2.7
60 mph: 8.7 sec
100 mph: 26.1 sec
1/4-Mile: 16.4 sec @ 82 mph
Top Gear, 30–50 mph: 13.3 sec
Top Gear, 50–70 mph: 14.2 sec
Top Speed: 123 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 170 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft Skidpad: 0.80 g 


Observed: 26 mpg

City/Highway: 22/27 mpg 


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Contributing Editor

William Jeanes is a former editor-in-chief and publisher of Car and Driver. He and his wife, Susan, a former art director at Car and Driver, are now living in Madison, Mississippi.

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